The Rich Tradition of Chinese Tea Culture
BY RONA VASELAAR
According to Chinese legend, tea was first discovered over 5,000 years ago by Emperor Shen Nung when a few errant tea leaves fell into his pot of boiling water and created something that smelled and tasted so good, it would become an integral part of Chinese culture for thousands of years to come. Walking through Nanjing today, it is rare to traverse the entirety of a street without encountering at least one teahouse along the way. As China has matured and developed, so too has its tea culture, resulting in a rich heritage that attracts tea lovers from around the world.
However, this complex heritage can act as a double-edged sword. Those of us who first entered into the world of tea culture as adults may find this rich culture overwhelming. Chinese tea culture appears as vast as an ocean and we can only hope to gain a drop or two of knowledge from its currents.
It was with this mindset that I first walked into a small teahouse on Nanjing’s Shanghai Road, knowing next to nothing about the different kinds of teaware, beliefs and traditions common to Chinese tea culture.
It was in that same teahouse that I met Xiaozi, who introduced me to the basics of Chinese tea culture and its tools. Over a short period of time, we bonded over our love of tea and became close friends. When I was given the opportunity to write a piece on Chinese tea culture, the first thing I did was ask Xiaozi if she would be willing to participate in a short interview. Our “short” interview quickly turned into a long one, conducted over several days in the form of extended and in-depth conversations.
In just a few days, Xiaozi has given me invaluable insight into Chinese tea culture and its place within the greater scheme of Chinese society. The wisdom Xiaozi imparts on her customers and friends is priceless to tea-aficionados who are just beginning their journey into the vast world of Chinese tea culture.
Xiaozi and her family come from Yixing (宜兴), a city that carries special importance for tea-drinkers. Located in Jiangsu Province, Yixing is famous for its abundance of a material known in Chinese as Zisha (紫砂)，which translates to “purple sand.” Some of the most cherished – and expensive – of Chinese teapots are made from this coveted material.
“It [Zisha] is special due to its dense construction, somewhat like porcelain although it is stronger, made up of very fine particles,” explains Xiaozi. “When broken, it is repaired with seashell or stone. However, it is not as translucent as porcelain. Zisha products from Yixing have these qualities. Additionally, as the teapots are used, they become smoother due to small changes in the grain in the Zisha, which demonstrates the effect of the sand.” She extols the virtues of Zisha teapots saying, “Zisha products are not glazed, but are made using only the clay’s original coloring. As a result, after firing, the colors are warm, the products are quaint and cute and the surface of the products have a matte effect, which reduces light reflection and clearly displays the product’s shape, its decoration and the effect of its naturally vivid colors.”
Yixing’s Zisha teapots have a very important characteristic that is much sought after by the most experienced tea connoisseurs: its ability to form a patina. A patina, in regards to tea, refers to the buildup of tea residue in teaware over time, resulting in a ‘seasoned’ pot that infuses each brew with the flavors and scents of previous brews. The presence of a patina leads to more complex tea flavors and many tea drinkers enjoy seasoning their own pots. Aside from the formation of a patina, Xiaozi asserts that the Zisha teapots also change color and become more beautiful with each brewing.
It is tempting to believe that understanding Chinese teaware is simply a matter of acknowledging the existence and importance of Zisha. However, within the realm of Zisha teaware, there is an incredible amount of variety that deserves attention. For example, although “Zisha” literally translates to “purple sand,” it comes in a variety of colors. Xiaozi mentions that “aside from the major colors such as cinnabar and purple, there are also white, black, yellow, and others.” They also use an impressive array of teapot styles. “More traditional models such as the traditional stone gourd style pots, inverted-handle pots (in which the bottom of the handle is thicker than the top), joint happiness pots, and high well-railing pots. Of course, we are constantly making new styles of teapots, which often involves improving on old styles. Using your own personal design is a little more modern.”
For many people, one of the greatest impediments to buying a Yixing Zisha teapot is the price. According to Xiaozi, a cheap Zisha teapot costs about 560 RMB (approximately $90 USD). This is not a purchase that most people – especially students – would make lightly. Additionally, the price depends not only on quality but also on how the product was made. Xiaozi explains the molding process: “Teapots can be separated into two categories: those that are handmade and those that are only partially handmade. If a product is completely handmade, it does not have a mold and is totally constructed by hand. If it is partially handmade, some sections of the teapot are made using a mold, and the rest is made by hand.” Obviously, teapots that are made entirely by hand tend to be more expensive.
Of course, many people would say that Yixing Zisha teapots are well worth the price, especially for the sentimental value that they carry after years of seasoning. When asked about her favorite piece of teaware, Xiaozi hit upon one of the most important characteristics of Yixing Zisha teapots: “If you like Zisha teapots, you may realize that in reality you might like all variations of them. Perhaps every person has a particularly favored teapot style. Personally, I tend to like bottle-gourd style teapots, because I think they’re quite cute. All people should have this kind of childlike innocence.”
As important as teaware is, it is really only a tool — a vehicle to deliver the protagonist: tea.
Xiaozi tends to favor black teas (which are referred to as ‘red teas’ in Chinese), due to the fact that she has a weak stomach. “Many people’s physical constitutions are not suited to drinking green tea. For example, if one has a weak stomach one should not drink green tea. Instead, during the summer months one can drink red tea.” By contrast, people who suffer from ‘excessive heat’ must adhere to a different standard: “If you are a person who has excessive heat trapped in their body, it is suggested to drink less red tea and to drink it somewhat diluted.” When it comes to tea and health, Xiaozi offers this advice: “When selecting which tea to drink, I believe everyone should pay attention to their body’s constitution. This is extremely important! You don’t necessarily have to drink very expensive or famous tea, but it must be natural and healthy!”
Additionally, the turning of the seasons can affect the tea one should drink: “Generally speaking, during spring, fall, and winter one should drink red tea. In the summer, when the weather is hot, one can drink green tea in order to cool down.”
The Family Business
During the course of our interviews, I eventually became interested about Xiaozi herself. How did she enter into the tea business and why? She proudly displays a certificate from the Chinese government granting her permission to operate her teashop. When asked what her dream occupation was, she admitted that tea was in her blood.
“My grandfather was the first to start working with Zisha…to create sculptures. It was my mother who first used it to make teapots. Altogether, our career in Zisha creation goes back over 30 years.”
Most of the teapots in Xiaozi’s teahouse were made by her mother, along with a few that she has made herself. Upon graduating college, she chose to open a teahouse in Nanjing to showcase her family’s handmade teaware: “I wanted to start a new undertaking by opening a new shop and continue exploring the world of business. Because my own family makes Zisha products, once I graduated from college I also entered into this tradition and began to promote Zisha and tea culture.“
Engaging with Chinese tea culture can seem like a daunting experience, but it doesn’t have to be. Many long conversations with Zisha have revealed that understanding tea culture leads to a greater engagement with China’s traditions and cultural norms. It is easy to see how tea has influenced everyday life in China — from restaurants to Traditional Chinese Medicine, tea appears in nearly every facet of live in the middle kingdom. With such a great social impact, it’s no wonder that so many people are fascinated by tea culture.
There are many ways to learn more about Chinese tea culture. There are numerous books, blogs, articles, and documentaries that all have something to say on the subject. Personally, I think the best way to understand tea is to simply walk down the street, enter a teahouse and open your eyes and ears. After all, you never know what you might learn or discover just outside your front door.